Thursday, March 18, 2010

Merantau (2009)

In much the same way that Ong Bak (2003) heralded the breakthrough of tony Jaa, Merantau (2009) introduces  Iko Uwais.  It's the most impressive martial arts movie I've seen in the last five years, and boasts fluid fight choreography, expertly filmed to highlight its intricacy..

The plot follows Yuda as he leaves his Sumatran village to embark on a traditional rite of passage called Merantau; he must travel far and return a man.  He journeys to Jakarta where he finds a young women being assaulted in an alleyway.  He intervenes, and finds himself in the middle of a human trafficking operation, led by two Europeans.

The sincerity of the acting amplifies the emotional impact of the relatively simple plot.  It's hard to believe that this was Iko's first performance - he seems perfectly at home in front of the camera.  The director, Gareth Evans, must also be complemented for the high production values (although I'd like to discover how a Welshman found himself directing an Indonesian martial arts film).

The fights feature the Indonesian martial art of Silat, and are intricately choreographed and very organic.  There are many long takes and wide shots, and action follows fluidly from one edit to another.

The fights are filmed on a steadicam that organically follows the action.  The camera-shake does not interfere with the fights or make the action difficult to follow, but enhances their chaos.

The most impressive fight takes place in an elevator (or lift, in British parlance). The tight quarters and the speed of the fight made me catch my breath on more than one occasion - it's fast, frenetic and expertly filmed, with every movie clearly defined.  My favorite move is a vicious throw in which the steadicam tracks Yuda down. I literally winced when Yuda hit the floor.

My only complaint is the not entirely subtle use of wires for some stunt-work. This is jarring, given how grounded in reality the other fights are.

I'm not going to spoil the end of the movie, but the final fight is a satisfying face-off against the two European traffickers. Yuda and the two Europeans learn how to counter each other, with Yuda only gaining the upper hand during the final few minutes.

I'm surprised at how satisfying this movie is to watch, given that it's the feature debut for both the director and the main actor.  I'm certainly looking forward to their next collaboration, more so than Tony Jaa's next movie.

Once you've watched the movie, I recommend watching the production blog at the movie's YouTube site; they give a fantastic insight into the fight choreography.

If you enjoy martial arts movies, then you'll want to read my analysis of the finest fight ever filmed and this list of five breathtaking action scenes

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